Traditional Marxism and intellectual production, Part 1

(I thought it might be useful to someone to post here some cursory notes from a paper I wrote last year about how intellectuals get theorized within Marxism.)

There corresponds to the capitalist mode of production a type of intellectual production quite different from that which corresponded to the medieval mode of production. Unless material production itself is understood in its specific historical form. it is impossible to grasp the characteristics of the intellectual production which corresponds to it or the reciprocal action between the two.” (Marx, in Williams 1977:81)

A cursory look back at “traditional” Marxism gives us two broad theoretical traditions dealing with intellectual production. On one hand, there is a tradition of thinking in terms of “base” and “superstructure” that distinguishes, with more or less theoretical subtlety, between economics and production on one hand and culture or ideology on the other. Such a theory has notoriously been critiqued for its potential for conceptual errors; in 1921, Lukacs was already endorsing Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of “Marxist vulgar economics,” and arguing instead for a dialectical theory of social totality which would let “‘ideological’ and ‘economic’ problems lose their mutual exclusiveness and merge into one another” while still not equating the two (1967:34). Even in the 70s, theorists like Raymond Williams felt obliged to point out that reifying the “base” and “superstructure” as separate entities—as if the two terms captured something more than dynamically interrelated moments of a total social process—is both analytically unhelpful and untrue to Marx’s original intention (1977:75-82). Hence we find that more recent Marxist theory seldom speaks of “base” and “superstructure” as such; the terms themselves have been superceded by a post-Althusserian concern with “structural causality,” implying a more flexible relation between economy and culture (Jameson 1981), and by a feminist interest in theorizing how economic production relates to social reproduction (Firestone 1970). But granted that this tradition has been significantly reformulated over time, it seems to me that this point of departure nonetheless still has something to recommend it, inasmuch it encourages us to think structurally about how not-directly-economic activities relate to the sphere of production as such. It encourages us to think about the functional role of the unproductive. And in the case of the intellectuals, it encourages us to ponder the fact that mental labor has to be understood in opposition to physical labor, that the intellectual class gets defined not just through free-floating self-definition but also in opposition to other social groups.

The trouble, though, with this first theory is that it tends towards an overly functionalist theory of intellectual labor, tending to reduce intellectual production too rapidly to its ideological functions or class basis (Sartre 1968:ch. 2, esp. 53-56). It lacks a theory of the practice of intellectual labor, tending at times to reduce it to non-productive “ideology.” Hence the interest of a second Marxist tradition, one which theorizes the relation between theory and praxis. Such a theory was apparent as early as Marx’s 1845 Theses on Feuerbach, which argued that thought and action should ideally be brought together in “practical-critical activity,” and that “man must prove the truth… of his thinking, in practice,” or else fall into a pointless, “purely scholastic” attitude. Such a theory obviously makes more space for considering knowledge-making as itself a practical activity, and for analyzing the relations of intellectual production within which knowledge is made. My sense, though, is that this theory of theory and praxis has most classically been restricted to quite a narrow band of activity. If we look again to Lukacs’ text on Luxembourg, we find a decided argument that theory and praxis can only be brought together under the aegis of proletarian politics. This argument, it is important to point out, involves a quite explicit attack on disciplinary specialization and bourgeois science:

“The process of abstraction and hence the isolation of the elements and concepts in the special disciplines and whole areas of study is of the very essence of science. But what is decisive is whether this process of isolation is a means towards understanding the whole and whether it is integrated within the context it presupposes and requires, or whether the abstract knowledge of an isolated fragment retains its ‘autonomy’ and becomes an end in itself. In the last analysis Marxism does not acknowledge the existence of independent sciences of law, economics or history, etc.: there is nothing but a single, unified­ dialectical and historical-science of the evolution of society as a totality.”

And a moment later: “Bourgeois thought judges social phenomena consciously or unconsciously, naively or subtly, consistently from the standpoint of the individuaI… The totality of an object can only be posited if the positing subject is itself a totality; and if the subject wishes to understand itself, it must conceive of the object as a totality. In modern society only the classes can represent this total point of view.” [1967:28]

Lukacs goes on to explain that it is uniquely within the Communist Party that theory and praxis get intertwined, that it is within the Party that the truth of society is proved through revolutionary action, that the party “is assigned the sublime role of bearer of the class consciousness of the proletariat” (41). In short, not just anyone can bring theory and praxis together; only the proletariat and the Party can become totalizing subjects that objectify and also revolutionize the social order. “Theory-praxis” for Lukacs, in other words, is not an analytic category that one would use to analyze existing institutions of intellectual production, but rather a specifically Communist aspiration and, if anything, a standard for critiquing the shortcomings of bourgeois intellectuals. Now, with the benefit of a century of hindsight, it seems clear that Lukacs was wrong to assume the necessity of a tight link between historical materialist theory and revolutionary practice; contra Lukacs, neither a completely “conscious” proletariat nor a fully “dialectical” method are necessary or sufficient conditions for radical political action. But by the same token, if we extract the theory of “theory and praxis” from the confines of specifically Communist organizing, we may find that it is a useful notion in analyzing other kinds of theoretical practice, other sections of the apparatus of intellectual production. And reading across these two Marxist theoretical traditions (and with all due apologies for the brevity of this discussion), we might suggest more broadly that a reasonable theory of intellectual production would unite an interest in the relations between theory and praxis in particular sites with a concern for the specific structural status of intellectual production in the larger socioeconomic system.

Such a rigorous theory of intellectual production has, in my view, managed to elude us this far.

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